Hi-tech seed factories
Sowing seeds of success
India is the largest cotton growing country in the world. Today it has the highest percentage of year-on-year growth compared to any other Bt cotton-growing country in the world. India also overtook the US to become the second largest cotton producing country in the world after China. Starting in 2002 when 54,000 farmers grew approximately 50,000 hectares of officially approved Bt cotton hybrids, the Bt cotton area increased to approximately 1,00,000 hectares in 2003, half a million hectares in 2004, 1.3 million hectares in 2005, 3.8 million hectares in 2006, and 6.2 million hectares in 2007. A total of 131 Bt cotton hybrids were approved for planting in 2007 compared to 62 in 2006, 20 in 2005 and only four Bt cotton hybrids in 2004. India has diversified deployment of Bt genes and genotypes, which are adapted to different agro-economical zones and to ensure equitable distribution to small and resource poor cotton farmers.
The reason for the success is undoubtedly due to the efforts of the seed companies. These companies may not be as much in limelight as their peers from the other industries are or say even the biopharma companies. They are not present in the major biotechnology centers or happening cities. Yet, these companies are successful purely for two reasons. They are in the vicinity of their customers and they believe in using technology in an appropriate and responsible way. And they have several offices and production centers in various parts of the country. Neither are they small nor are they spending lesser on R&D and infrastructure compared to companies in other sectors. According to ISAAA, the crop biotech investment from both public and private sectors in India, is conservatively estimated at Rs 400-500 crore per annum and is focused on the development of biotech food, feed and fiber crops that can contribute to higher and more stable yields and enhanced nutrition. Several public institutions and private companies in India have projects to develop varieties of the drought tolerant eggplant or brinjal. The eggplant projects are all geared to deliver biotech products for evaluation and approval by the government in the near-term representing India's first biotech food product.
BioSpectrum reporters have traveled to the centers of some of these leading companies in India (Mahyco in Jalna, Rasi Seeds in Attur, Krishidhan Seeds in Ghanewadi and Ankur Seeds in Nagpur to see the facilities and the size of operations. The underlying message from the visit to all these facilities is common. World-class infrastructure, structured-approach, teams who believe in results and are committed, and all of them are focused on quality. Read on ...
Sensing the changing needs in the seed sector, Nagpur-based Ankur Seeds has started gearing up. The company has invested in biotechnology in a big way to introduce biotech traits in Indian crops of interest, to speed up the crop breeding by way of molecular techniques. A defined breeding objective with thrust on germplasm development has always been a mandate for its research division. Recruitment of qualified personnel in production and marketing is already underway to further strengthen the existing set-up. With this, the management is confident of overcoming the challenges of the competitive market.
Since its inception in 1976, Ankur has been involved in research, production and marketing of hybrids and varieties in cotton, field crops and vegetables. The strength of the company lies in the availability of proprietary germplasm for use in breeding. "In order to maintain quality in hybrid development, we have been using male sterility system to ensure genetically pure hybrid seeds in the crops whereever it is available. Our scientists have also successfully developed cytoplasmic genetic male sterility system in brinjal, which is a crop of Indian importance. The germplasm having wider adaptability is being used in the breeding program. Breeder seed production programs are taken up under the vigilance of qualified breeders. The breeding programs are well supported by the breeding support labs that help in proper assessment of germplasm for quality parameters. Latest techniques like marker-assisted breeding are being practiced in crops like rice, wheat, cotton and some vegetable crops. All this helps us to achieve high quality hybrids," said MG Shembekar, managing director, Ankur Seeds. Quality at the source level ensures that the resultant production coming from production areas meet the required quality norms.
Production programs for Ankur are undertaken in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. "Annually we are taking up seed production on nearly 40,000 hectares through contract farming. This is expected to grow further in the years to come. Most of the seed-producing farmers are associated with the company for over a decade and that has ensured an environment of trust and loyalty. The company personnel strictly adhere to the norms of seed production and also help the producers with technical information to improve the quality of production", Shembekar added.
To handle and process the produced seeds, Ankur has seven processing units in seed production areas in the country with a capacity to handle 30,000 tons of seed. The processing units are located in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Seed quality control laboratories are located in each of the processing units. The quality of seed is ensured at various stages of its multiplication. All the guidelines of seed production are adhered to ensure quality seed production.
The quality of produced seed is tested for all the physical parameters, germination, genetic purity, and vigour. This job is done at the quality control laboratories attached to the processing plants. Genetic purity of the seeds is field-tested and in certain crops like rice, molecular markers are being used to test hybrid purity. Testing of GM crops is done with ELISA and PCR techniques and Ankur has set up a big facility to test commercial lots of Bt cotton in the given time frame with ELISA. The accuracy of testing is above 98 percent. The company has dehumidified and air conditioned warehouses for short-term storage of parental seed lots and low-volume high value crops. Qualified personnel are engaged for field inspections and supervision at various developmental crop stages. Similarly qualified staff handles the processing activities up to packing level. "All this helps maintain consistency in seed quality," said Shembekar.
Stepping up the operations in all the divisions is going to be an inevitable step in a growing organization. The company intends to do the same in a phased manner in all the divisions so as to maintain a balance in all the activities related to seeds.
Most of the seed companies with their own research products have their own infrastructure for the processing and the quality control. "But the existing facilities, infrastructures we feel are just enough to handle the limited production. An expansion will always be on cards," added Shembekar.
The end user of the seed material is of immense importance for Ankur Seeds and to fulfil their requirements is their motto for which the organization as a whole is striving.
The R&D unit of Mahyco at Jalna was set up in 1998. Amongst all the R&D units located across the country, the Jalna unit is the only center which conducts trials and research for transgenic crops. The company conducts research in six locations in the country. At present, trials are been conducted on Bt Brinjal (which is in its last phase and Bt rice (which is going through multi-location trials). This center also conducts trials for insect tolerant seeds, development of genes which is resistant to high salinity and drought resistance. The biotech lab at the Jalna center alone has 70-80 employees. At Mahyco, plant biotechnology is viewed as a tool to be used in a selective manner, as an integral part of plant breeding programs. Traits of value, which are difficult to breed for, or are absent in germplasm available to breeders, are the focus of biotechnology research at Mahyco. Making such traits available enables Mahyco breeders to incorporate them in a precise manner, eliminating unwanted traits that could be carried along in traditional breeding methods.
Production centers of Mahyco are again located in the central and southern zone in India. Infrastructure on the whole (all India basis) includes 27 production centers and eight processing units), 9000 tons of dehumidified storage capacity of sensitive seeds.
Biotechnology research programs at Mahyco have access to ultracentrifuges, automated DNA sequencing, electron microscopy, microtomes, fermentation, and CHEF gel capabilities. Major research areas include crop transformation, molecular virology, molecular microbiology, gene discovery and molecular markers, entomology and diagnostics.
Facilities at the Mahyco's research center in Jalna include:
Biotechnology lab: Gene discovery projects for traits such as drought resistance and insect resistance. Antibody mediated and gene silencing strategies for pathogen control and alternative male sterility system.
Crop/plant transformation: Transformation and molecular analysis of transgenic crops are undertaken here. Plant transformation research is ongoing in a number of field crop and vegetable species, using techniques developed in-house. The crops include rice, eggplant, okra, tomato, cotton and sunflower, and several others that are being optimized.
Molecular virology: In this department, research involves conventional and biotechnological approaches to control of economically important viruses such as geminiviruses and tospoviruses. Target areas of emphasis for control strategies include biology of virus transmission between vectors and host plants, as well as viral replication and intercellular movement. Also identification of prominent genotype takes place here.
Molecular microbiology: Microbes, genes or gene products with antimicrobial, pesticide, agrochemical degradation, biofertilizer or plant growth-promoting properties are key research areas. Plant-pathogen interactions at the molecular level are being investigated in order to develop durable and/or enhanced levels of resistance.
Gene discovery and molecular markers: Projects in the area of gene discovery are aimed at identification of genes which confer tolerance to abiotic stresses such as drought and salinity, as well as plant disease and insect resistance. DNA marker techniques are being used for marker-aided breeding in various crops, as well as seed purity assays. Incorporation of disease resistance genes using MAS and MAB are underway in rice and vegetable crops.
Plant disease clinic: Here, the identification of pathogens from infected samples and screening for disease resistance in seeds takes place.
R& D infrastructure
Conventional breeding: Elite hybrids development through conventional breeding in crops like cotton, maize, rice, wheat, okra, tomato chilli, gourds, and pearl millet.
Rasi Seeds is a leading seed company located at Attur near Salem in Tamil Nadu. Traveling through Salem, the hub for steel in the country, one would be amazed to see the technological advancement and application in the research facilities of Rasi Seeds at Attur. It has state-of-art biotech lab with 16,230 sft floor space and uses sophisticated equipment like PCR, thermal cycler, incubator shaker, UV-VIS spectrophotometer (Nanodrop), electrophoresis system, gene gun, and deep freezer for biotech research. The company has released 22 Bt and BG-II cotton hybrids for commercial exploitation in major cotton growing tracts of India, probably one of the largest by any company in India.
Set up by M Ramasami, a graduate in agriculture, the R&D center of Rasi Seeds has been recognized by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. Rasi's product coverage measures an impressive figure of more than 10 million acres in the past decade. Apart from cotton, the company's research in biotechnology includes crop improvement through Recombinant DNA technology (Genetic Engineering), in vitro plant tissue culture, molecular biology, molecular breeding in crops like bhendi, rice, tapioca, tomato and brinjal to address hitherto unsolved problems in these crops.
Krishidhan Seeds Ltd (KSL) established its own research farm in the late 1990s at Ghanewadi, which is located close to Jalna in Maharashtra. For over a decade, this center was being used for plant breeding research on all crops. However, it is now mainly used for breeding of cereals like maize, sorghum and pearl millet as KSL has established other crop-dependent breeding research centers across India. A team of skilled physiologists and plant breeders work to create new superior genotypes by employing hybridization and extensive in-house evaluation approaches. Each product is tested extensively by third-party evaluators and professionals based on products' performance at multi-location trials that are done closely with trained and experienced farmers. Here the variables of the same crop were seen to be grown. Like in the case of pearl millet, there were variables of the same crop, which could be used as grains or for fodder purposes (as in demand in a state like Rajasthan)
Amongst these crops there were portions, which were enveloped to accelerate hybridization, bring about parent lines and new hybrids. The farm is replete with containment facilities like net houses, polly houses, transgenic house which are being used for all season breeding to accelerate the breeding program and also for conversion of new lines and crops with transgenics in strict compliance of GEAC regulations.
At the site, a net house is being used for multiplication of Bt cotton lines under contained conditions. These Bt cotton parental plants are grown in the off-season period since KSL aims to grow crops on an average ranging between 2-3 crops a year. This net-enclosed house is used primarily to prevent the pollination process from other crops situated outside the net sheds with that of the Bt cotton crops. KSL has licensed the Bt cotton gene from Monsanto and has successfully commercialized second generation insect resistance cotton crop. Subsequently, these are taken to the processing units located within the main campus.
Hand pollination of emasculated flowers of new brinjal is being done as KSL has acquired indigenous Bt gene from one of the public sector institution and is trying to develop insect resistance Bt brinjal. Conditions in these polyhouses are used for off-season breeding and converting lines for transgenes. Female brinjal lines (in their variable versions) are being grown for transgenic Bt brinjal under contained conditions as laid down by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). An investment of Rs 12 lakh was made for this facility and contained conditions include fan filters, cooling pads, all possible openings covered with nets, a double wall and an ante chamber (a separate chamber to enter the polyhouses rather than a direct entry to the protected field). The house is also used for the same purpose to protect the brinjal crops from pollen grains of other crops inorder to control the gene flow.
This includes taking the breeding seeds and multiplying the same seeds according the amount required by farmers. To produce the foundation seeds from these seeds, a team checks and assesses seeds for purity and quality and then zeroes in on the commercial seeds, which are fit to be processed and packaged
KSL has 11 automated processing plants with a processing capacity of 46,400 quintals per annum (all India). There are four plants at Jalna. Its processing units have machinery for pre-cleaning, cleaning and gravity separation, besides destoner, needle separators, seed treater, dryers, printers, FSS machine and 2 D/H warehouses of 10,000 cubic feet, which can accommodate 800 quintals of seeds. Total investment in plants and machineries comes up to approximately Rs 8.95 crore.
The chemically treated Bt cotton seeds are collected in an FSS machine which is manufactured by an Italian subsidiary company. Seeds here are packaged in plastic bags and then fitted into cartons. Its infrastructure also includes an industrial racking system, which is 300-ft tall. Conditioned godowns, cold storage facilities for storage of sensitive crops like onion, coriander as well for germ plasm storage are established at Jalna.
KSL's R&D is a recognized by DSIR and includes a state-of-the-art biotech laboratory, plant molecular and biology lab. Most of the hybrids developed here are in pipeline and will be commercialized soon. KSL has a well-equipped biotech research lab and conducts tests for the purity of Bt cotton. It conducts ELISA testing for Bt protein. The biotech division mans a professional scientific team of plant molecular biologists, bioinformaticians, geneticist and entomologist. KSL is undertaking applied plant science research to develop multi-stress tolerant traits. Its present work includes plant molecular biology, plant tissue culture, insect bioassays and GMO diagnostic projects.
Quality checkups are conducted at various stages which looks into the germination process, the physical purity of the seeds as well as the genetic purity of the seeds. KSL has a Q&A division which handle 4,00,000 samples per year as per ISTA procedures. Only seeds meeting the stringent quality standards are released. Quality checks are done in two stages. One when the seeds are deemed fit as a commercial product and sent in for processing and the next check up happens before they go in for packaging.
Nayantara Som in Ghanewadi, Jalna, Maharashtra
"If we facilitate seed industry, we facilitate growth in agriculture"
-Dr Govind Garg, director, R&D, Krishidhan Seeds
How do you think biotechnology will play a role in seed development in future and what is the status of its R&D at Krishidhan?
Krishidhan visualizes biotechnology to be one of the major drivers for improving crop productivity. Biotech permits fastest improvement of the best genotypes available and the day is not far when biotechnology in its various forms will not only assist in rapid development of varieties in monogenic traits, but also be able to manipulate polygenic traits, which influence productivity and quality. Biotechnology is also being recognized as a major tool for creating diversity, which is getting limited due to senseless destruction of environment through pollution and deforestation. We feel that the environment is not threatened by biotechnology. On the contrary, biotechnology mitigates the bad effects of environmental pollution and defends biodiversity. With this belief, we have established a state-of-the-art biotechnology research center where we are investigating and engineering crops with biotic and abiotic stress tolerance. We have few innovative traits and molecular assisted breeding support services in pipeline.
How important are R&D activities for a seed company? What are the various R&D initiatives undertaken by Krishidhan?
R&D activity at Krishidhan started in 1990. In last five years, extensive applied research efforts have been invested to design and develop products that can meet farmer's expectations and provide better performance and value. There has to be a win-win situation where agriculture must lead to economic empowerment of farmers through better productivity and consumer satisfaction with better quality and assure rural employment to agriculture labor and scientific personnel in an organized fashion. This cannot be achieved unless there is a continued effort for better products which can be developed, produced and marketed in an organized sector like that a seed company. So, having in-house R&D is very crucial for any seed company like ours. We believe that for a functional R&D, support from the government and other financial institutions is a prerequisite. There is need to have synergy rather than competitiveness between public and private sectors.
What are the prospects of cotton hybrids in India?
Cotton being a carbohydrate-based product, it attracts many diseases and pests that reduce its productivity. Farmers in past have found solutions through use of insecticide and pesticide which could provide only temporarily relief and caused more of environmental and health hazard than sustained benefits. As a consequence, both the cotton cultivation and textile industries suffered in India. It is evident from history that Punjab and many other places of the ginning factories became defunct and India's cotton productivity observed a serious loss. One Bt trait has not only revived cotton production but has made even textile industries to become very vibrant and demanding. The cotton productivity has grown from 300 lint kg per hectare to more than 500 kgs per hectare in less than five years with the introduction of Bt cotton. It has also triggered race for development of better genotypes that should see cotton productivity going even higher through improved cotton hybrids both in Bt and non-Bt base.
What policy initiatives, in your opinion should be considered by the government for the seed industry to unleash its true potential?
I think this is an important question. I have shifted from public sector to private sector after having a rich experience of 35 years service in public sector. I must confess that my view of looking at seed industries were different while serving in the public sector. Like others I also always thought seed industry as a bundle of money and driven by people with greed to make fast money. It is only after joining a seed company that I developed better appreciation for seed companies in general and Krishidhan in particular. Ever since the introduction of Bt cotton, there has been ever increasing demand for better products from farmers. The turnover of Krishidhan has increased every year. It has to be realized that company gets its products produced by the farmers. Only then it undertakes processing and packaging to add proper value to make it a quality seed which is to be used by farmers. We have to maintain a very delicate balance between the procurement price, which has to be high enough to motivate growers for seed production and selling price has to be reasonable so as to attract farmers for better product. Often people think only about farmers but fail to think about of necessity of a healthy seed industry with same intensity as without the services of seed industry, it will be difficult or I will say impossible, to attain a required growth in agriculture for food security and prosperity of farmers.
"Indian seed industry is well placed to serve both domestic and international markets"
-Dr MK Sharma, managing director, Mahyco Monsanto
What are your views about the future of the seed industry? How do you expect to grow vis-à-vis the industry?
The seed industry in India has been making great strides since Independence. The impetus to this was also provided by the changes that have taken place in the economic and agriculture scenario of the country and also the international environment. Globalization and economic reforms have opened new opportunities with many challenges. The Indian seed industry is well placed to serve both domestic and international markets. The seed industry is now in a position to meet the demand of diverse agro-climatic conditions and intensive cropping systems. The ever-increasing demand for agriculture products can only be met by sustained increase in production and productivity to which new and improved variety of quality seeds contribute to a greater extent. The Indian seed industry is now in a better position to face such challenges by investing more in research and development programs, use of biotechnology, acquisitions, mergers and collaborations with like-minded research companies to bring synergy, addition of new range of crops, products and technologies and also value-addition to the existing crops by traditional methods.
From here biotechnology will play an important role in agriculture development through transgenic seeds. It holds great promise in developing crop varieties with higher level of tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses and nutritional enhancement. Bollgard (Bt) cotton the first and presently the only Indian transgenic crop is one of the best example to prove such claims.
For the growth of seed industry, what are key levers, critical issues and blockers?
For smooth growth of the seed industry, it is a must to remove road blocks like:
Equal treatment for public and private sector in matters like subsidy on seed
Protection through regulation to technologies developed by private sector from unauthorized use.
There should be a science-based and less time consuming regulatory system for the release of transgenic crops. Also commercial decisions like price and packing should be the prerogative of the inventor only. The seed industry should be treated at par with other similar agro-based industry in all taxation matters including income tax.
How is the whole process of seed production, processing and quality control monitored?
The monitoring of seed quality is a long drawn continuous process which starts from breeder seed, foundation seed to hybrid/varietal seed production and continues through seed processing and finally packing and its storage. At every step, strict monitoring is done by technically qualified seed production and quality control supervisors, by visiting the seed production field at specific stages of seed crop to ensure that there is no contaminant in the field or in required isolation area. Seed from only those production fields, which meet the required field standards during the crop season is accepted for processing. Prior to and after processing the samples are drawn for various tests namely genetic purity, germination, vigor and physical purity. In case of transgenic crop, test for the presence of trait is also carried out. Seed lots declared pass in all above referred tests are finally packed and dispatched for distribution. Lots which fail to meet the required standard in any one or more tests are declared as unfit for use as seed. Seed processing is carried out at the company's own seed processing plant located in various states, in close proximity to seed production areas. The processing plants are well equipped with imported, efficient and high capacity seed processing machines
How is the company able to withstand the competition from other players?
Mahyco strives to provide quality seeds. Since its inception it has been engaged in plant genetic research and production of quality seeds. Currently it is engaged in developing genetically enhanced crops with the use of gene transfer technology. Mahyco is the first company to commercially grow and market the transgenic Bollgard (Bt) cotton – India's first transgenic crop in 2002. Presently Mahyco scientists are busy in genetically modifying cereal and vegetable crops to infuse them with novel traits such as resistance to drought, herbicide, sucking pest and nutritional enhancement.